TRADITION, Tenderloin (441 Jones Street at O’Farrell; open Monday through Saturday at 6 pm-2am)
Tradition is not neighboring Bourbon & Branch, part two. Though I continue to bring visitors and locals who’ve never been to the still magical B&B, Tradition is a more relaxed entrant in the Future Bars line-up, which includes Bourbon & Branch, Wilson & Wilson, Rickhouse, Swig, and Local Edition.
Having been to Tradition multiple times since its June opening, part of me misses the divey fun (and cheesy movie nights – Top Gun!) of the former Mr. Lew’s Win-Win Bar & Grand Sazerac Emporium. Though unrecognizable from those days, I’m a fan of the dramatically altered, high ceiling space with numerous areas to enjoy a drink: small upstairs bar overlooking the action (dedicated to house blends and barrel-aged spirits), giant, rectangular center bar where you can sit or stand, in a cozy, back nook reminiscent of an English pub, or in one of eight “snugs”, which are essentially booths (reserve ahead). Each booth varies in size, seating two to eight, themed along with the visually striking, artistic menu: New Orleans, Prohibition, Tiki, American Dive Bar, English, Irish, Scottish, and Grand Hotel. Themes are established with vintage ads, signs and barware in each booth.
Impressively, owner Brian Sheehy and beverage director Ian Scalzo created an extensive house-blended and barrel-aged spirits program. Grouped by spirits from gin to whisk(e)y, they are storing and experimenting with countless barrels. Options imaginatively run the gamut while menu tasting notes appeal to spirits geeks or help narrow down options served neat or on the rocks. One could sip Four Roses bourbon finished in Pinot Noir wine casks or Four Roses Single Barrel in apple brandy casks. Russell’s Rye in a Green Chartreuse cask thoroughly intrigued me though I didn’t get as much herbal emphasis as I was hoping for from the Chartreuse. My beloved Redbreast 12 year Irish Whiskey (cask strength) is poured from a barrel washed with Guinness. Flor de Cana rum is finished in a sweet vermouth barrel, an “Autumn Blend” of bourbon and apple brandy in an Arabica coffee cask, Auchentoshan 12 year Scotch in a puer tea cask – combinations are fascinating. I have not seen the likes of this in any city… yet. There’s likely to be many imitators forthcoming.
Each themed cocktail menu also includes a couple beers in keeping with categories from English to Irish, all of it generally unfussy. With so many cocktails and barrel-aged spirits, some fare better than others. Pitchers and volcano bowls are ideal for groups, though those craving more intricate sips might steer elsewhere as these either get watered down quickly or aren’t as nuanced as individual drinks.
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After sampling over 30 drinks in my visits, my barrel favorite is Espolon Reposado tequila finished in an arabica coffee cask. Coffee and tequila impart a chocolate-orange spirit with notes of cedar, slate, citrus – a fascinating tipple. On the cocktail side, I’m most smitten with Kona Kope ($9) in the Exotic/Tiki category. Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva and barrel-aged spiced rums intermingle with coffee syrup, a touch of coconut cream and barrel-aged Angostura for a lively bit of elegance, bracing with coffee and whispers of the tropics. Multiple Sazerac variations on the New Orleans or Speakeasy menus haven’t quite gripped me – I prefer the Chicory Coffee Sour from the former (do you see a coffee theme developing?) or a classic Hanky Panky from the latter. On the Scottish menu, Hebrides Flip ($9) is a savory finish for those who like flips (i.e. whole egg): Black Bottle scotch, Dry Sack sherry, gomme syrup, whole egg and a little Cynar for bitter roundness.
A downside at Bourbon & Branch is being limited to a few drinks rather than the menu in the enchanting back Library Bar, although there it makes a lot more sense (since the bars are in separate rooms) than at Tradition where a much abbreviated menu happens at the same bar, depending on which side you’re on. Walk-ins stand on the left side of the main bar with limited menu, whereas in a snug or on the seated side of the main bar, there’s the book to choose from. For this reason, I make reservations at Tradition, prefering options vs. limitations, though I haven’t had issues securing a table on weeknights without one.
Tradition is located within a couple block radius already blessed with excellent bars (Jasper’s, Bourbon & Branch, Wilson & Wilson, Rye, etc…) But being close to Union Square, it’s a convenient Tenderloin meet-up with a little something for everyone (from cocktail geek to British pub fan). Even though not the most exquisite drinks in these parts, there are gems to be found, while the barrel program and relaxed vibe make it a downtown destination.